It was the epidemic which brought a whole industry to its knees - now, a year on, Nick Morrison looks at how farming is faring after foot-and-mouth.

JUST over 12 months ago, David Maughan was feeling pretty optimistic. After four lean years - a combination of the high value of sterling and the after-effects of a number of health scares, it looked as though farming was turning the corner. There were signs that prices were starting to pick up, and reason to believe a trend of falling profits in the industry would be reversed.

Then foot-and-mouth struck. A year ago today, the first case was confirmed at an abattoir in Essex. Within days, more cases had been found, and by the time decisive action was taken, the disease had already spread across the country. As the carcasses of thousands of animals were burned on huge funeral pyres, many predicted a slow and painful death for farming.

Twelve months on, farming is still alive and kicking, but there is every sign that the epidemic's repercussions will be felt for some time to come. And, as chairman of the NFU's livestock committee for Durham and Northumberland, David saw much of foot-and-mouth's effects at close quarters.

"I've seen it right from the word go, and it has been appalling for some people, a very bad experience," he says. "Some people have had some very bad times."

And David himself was not exempt. His farm at Morton Tinmouth, between Bishop Auckland and Darlington, was taken out, with 209 cattle culled. Like many in the industry, he decided to restock despite the trauma, but the situation is still far from easy.

Movement restrictions, although a far cry from the days when livestock was virtually incarcerated where it stood, still provide an obstacle. Auction marts are gradually reopening, but cleansing and disinfecting procedures are still in place. Things are far from back to normal.

"A lot more people are restocking, but some are not and some may not ever restock," David says. "Someone in their 50s, with no successor, has got to ask himself if he wants to continue farming.

"It has been a catalyst for change for some people. There are some who have brought retirement forward, or who are looking at using part of their land for other things, although, if you are an upland farmer, you don't have many alternatives if you want to carry on farming. And it is going to take quite some years to recover some of the breeds."

Fears that some farmers would be unable to restock due to a shortage of animals have proved largely unfounded, with many being brought up from the Midlands or the south west. But restoring the quality of breeding lines will take much longer to accomplish.

For many farmers whose stock was culled, the compensation payments have been the only things that kept them going. But farmers whose animals remained disease-free also suffered, and received no financial help.

"They had stock they were unable to sell, and when they did sell, prices were at rock bottom. They have found their cash flows suffered enormously," David says.

"I got the compensation for the animals that were slaughtered, which helps to cover you. It is called compensation, but really it is compulsory purchase - we had animals that were slaughtered that had a value and, without that, a lot of farmers would have been bankrupted, without a shadow of a doubt."

A survey carried out for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published yesterday, found that the vast majority of culled-out farmers were planning to restock. But around six per cent wanted to move out of farming, and another 25 per cent were planning to diversify into non-farming activities.

And the number who decide to call it a day may eventually be as high among those whose farms weren't culled, according to Rob Simpson, NFU North-East spokesman. In the last three years, he says, 60,000 farmers and farm-workers have left the industry, and there is little doubt this figure will grow.

"It has been absolutely horrendous in terms of financial loss, but reopening the marts is a very significant development. There is still very little British meat being exported, and that is an important area for the industry," he says.

Much will depend on Government policy changes, expected in the summer, following a series of reports on the future of farming. The signs are that there will be a move towards putting more land in environmental schemes and encouraging more organic farming, as well as marketing initiatives and greater diversification.

"In some ways, this is nothing different to what they were talking about last year or the year before, but there is a feeling that the change may be accelerated now. There are still quite significant problems in the industry, but I think we're in a year of change and it is very fluid."

But he says there are signs of optimism once more - with commodity prices seemingly at rock-bottom, there is only one way for them to go. "There is a degree of optimism, but there have been so many crises over the last few years, and there is a long way to go before we can finally say we have put foot-and-mouth behind us."

While the faint stirrings of optimism may provide an echo of 12 months ago, before foot-and-mouth cast its shadow, for David Maughan, as he looks at the newly-bought baby calves which he hopes will revive his fortunes, there is the knowledge of how quickly hope can disappear. "It's been a long year," he says.